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Does winning an Oscar open doors for black actors?

Viola Davis has spent the last six months defending herself and her movie in a way I’ve never known an Academy Award nominee to have to do. She tussled with Tavis Smiley. She was candid with The Wall Street Journal. Alongside Charlize Theron and George Clooney on a Newsweek panel, she was searching and blunt. Davis isn’t running for office. She didn’t ruin the economy. She’s not trying to get some new piece of legislation passed.

Dale Robinette/DreamWorks Pictures

Viola Davis has had to defend her decision to play a maid in “The Help.’’ She’s been nominated for an Oscar for the role.

All Viola Davis did was play a maid. All she’s about to do (probably) is accept an Oscar for that performance. But it’s a funny thing, that word “all.’’ It’s a de-escalating word. It’s a reality-check word. It is a “hey, it’s not that big of a deal, so lighten up, OK?’’ word. Yet “all’’ is also the most, the entire, the complete, the whole. All is everything and anything.

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So, it’s true, all Davis did was play a maid in 1960s Mississippi. But she played a maid in 2011. The popularity of the movie and the book upon which it’s based - “The Help’’ - takes a toll, amplified by the likelihood that Davis and Octavia Spencer, who also plays a maid in that movie, will both win Academy Awards tonight. That’s all, yes. But that’s everything, too. And it just brings everything up all over again.

By “everything,’’ I mean the Hattie McDaniel problem, and everything that that means.

McDaniel was the first black Oscar-winner. She won in 1940 for “Gone With the Wind,’’ which began its box-office conquest in 1939. McDaniel is as problematic a hero today as she was in the 1930s and 1940s. She spent her career playing domestics, the sorts of roles that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People characterized as a demeaning perpetuation of stereotypes. What could McDaniel do? It was work. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?’’ she is said to have quipped. “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.’’

‘Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.’

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When black actors complained at the time that McDaniel was undermining racial progress, she and other performers asserted that intraracial hand-wringing made it hard for them to do their jobs. It was honest, lucrative work, and say “no’’ too often, and the offers might dry up. That is more or less what Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, R.I., said to the talk-show host Smiley after he told her and Spencer that he was ambivalent about the possibility that they could win Oscars. “We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message,’’ she said, “and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they’ve been watered down to the point where they are not realistic at all. It’s like all of our humanity has been washed out.’’

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer (right) in “The Help.’’ Both are nominated for an Oscar.

Even though McDaniel never had a role as good as Davis’s or Spencer’s in “The Help,’’ this is still the Hattie McDaniel problem, and up it comes whenever a black woman who’s not Halle Berry might win an Oscar. There it was when Whoopi Goldberg won in 1991 and again when Queen Latifah was nominated in 2003 and yet again when Mo’Nique won in 2010. In a shrewd cosmic grace note, the gardenia Mo’Nique wore in her hair communed with the one McDaniel wore in hers the night she won. McDaniel is always there, the tremendously troublesome Hollywood ghost that she’s become, haunting the success of the dark-skinned and full-figured actress, the only sort of black actress who’s won the supporting-actress Oscar.

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McDaniel was in the air the night Goldberg won for her work in, well, “Ghost.’’ She was ostensibly there because Goldberg was the first woman to win since McDaniel. But it would be dishonest not to remark that there was a little of the McDaniel era in Oda Mae Brown, the psychic Goldberg played. What a compliment that should be. But it’s so loaded now - so tainted with politics and fraught with insult. It’s become another way of accusing any actress of extending a problematic tradition, which amounts to limiting how much a not petite, dark-skinned woman can do with her face. Davis might argue that the reason there’s no black Meryl Streep is because she’d be thrown to wolves of black artistic propriety. Certain black actors have to worry about being too broad, too pop-eyed, lest they continue a tradition of stereotypes. A curse of certain black movie-going entails watching black people in movies and worrying about what white people will see. (To illustrate the difference between the liberty of white ambition and the limits of its black counterpart: best-actress nominee Glenn Close spent more than a decade fighting to play a butler in “Albert Nobbs.’’)

It’s right for Davis to defend her choices, even though she needn’t. It is also right for some of us to wring our hands. But the thing about that distress, about twisting your fingers into knots, is that your hands can’t then push anything forward, there’s no real advancement. That, of course, is the trouble with the Oscars. They’re a smokescreen for change, an illusion of progress, and an insidious reinforcement of ancient ideals.

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Hattie McDaniel (right, with Vivien Leigh) won an Oscar in 1940 for her role as a maid in “Gone With the Wind.’’

Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times published a vivid report by Nicole Sperling, John Horn, and Douglas Smith, enumerating the demographic composition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It made inarguable what already seemed to be true: Oscar voters are white and male and old. According to the report, nonwhite voters account for 6 percent of the entire membership and 12 percent of the acting branch. Conclusion: The Academy looks a lot like the movies its members make. In 84 years, two black men have been nominated for best director, and since 2002, 21 black actors have been nominated, including Davis and Spencer; five have won.

This news seems obvious, and yet it suggests that the Academy, like the film industry it celebrates, operates according to institutional biases that it lacks the constitution to overcome. The movies are comfortable with black women in domestic roles (or caretakers and best friends and co-workers) because those are the only roles the movies have ever really known them to have. The acting Oscars are awarded as much for a single performance as for an entire body of work. But is it right or even fair to think of them as more: as a kind of redemption or absolution for, say, decades of racism in and out of Hollywood?

The Oscars is an industry saluting itself, but what happens during the 12 months between broadcasts says a lot, too. The Academy has honored movies that flattered its sense of liberalism - “In the Heat of the Night,’’ “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’’ “Driving Miss Daisy,’’ “Crash’’ - while failing to maintain those standards in the wider industry. Can this one night stand for any sort of investment in real change?

It was exciting to see Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, and Mo’Nique win. But I also haven’t seen much of them at the movies since they did. During the Newsweek panel, Davis noted that even Berry “is having a hard time,’’ which was her way of saying, “If the world’s most famous black star is struggling in this business, what can I do?’’

Every Oscar for a black actor feels like a turning point, like a breakthrough, like the movies will stop whitewashing black humanity, like a guarantee that any door that opens tonight for Spencer will stay open, that she and Davis will be able to open their own doors. But an Oscar is not a promise. And this night, as wonderful and important for Davis and Spencer as it promises to be, cannot mean everything. There is always the matter of tomorrow and whether we will continue to see these two women as often and as variously as they deserve to be seen.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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